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THE BERNARDS OF SYKESTON, TWICE: A story of North Dakota 'nomads'
By Dick Bernard
June 30, 2008
Note: The year 2008 is a time of many 125th anniversary celebrations in North Dakota. Among the towns celebrating its 125th in 2008 was the tiny town of Sykeston, ND 58486 (aerial photo accessible on the web). Sykeston is roughly in the center of the state. One of the families participating in the town celebration July 4-6 are members of the Bernard family, who also lived in many other parts of North Dakota, and whose ancestors had deep roots in North Dakota, going back to 1878, prior to statehood. This family story focuses on Sykeston, with references to a number of other places as well. A photo album follows this story.
A photo album of 16 photographs follows this essay.
HENRY AND ESTHER BERNARD and their family lived in Sykeston from 1945-51, and again from 1957-61. The Bernard's didn't really have a 'home town': Sykeston came close. All of us remember Sykeston fondly.
All five children: Richard (b. 1940), Mary Ann (1942), Florence (1944), Frank (1945) and John (1948), had some schooling at St. Elizabeth's Catholic School; Richard (1958) and Mary Ann (1960) graduated from Sykeston High School; Florence completed her Junior year there, and Frank, his Sophomore year.
The first Sykeston 'round,' Henry was a young man of 37 (Esther, two years younger). They were both teachers, and began their careers in the late 1920s. They met at Valley City Normal School, where both were summer school students. (In those years, many teachers would teach during the year, and go to summer school every summer, working towards a full degree.)
Though they grew up in the city of Grafton and on a farm in rural Berlin respectively, theirs was a school romance. Henry was fond of recalling that he proposed to Esther in 1936 in the one-room school near Grand Forks (Allandale #1 at Merrifield) in which he was then teaching. They married in 1937, as dirt poor as the Great Depression, then taught two years at Amidon. Their first child, Richard, was born as Henry completed his Bachelor's Degree at Valley City in 1939-40.
Esther was a full-time homemaker for thirteen years from the birth of Richard until John was kindergarten age. (His kindergarten was spent in Esther's 8th grade classroom.) Otherwise, from 1928 to 1971, Henry and Esther were school teachers.
Both 'rounds' at Sykeston, Henry was Superintendent at the High School. The second 'round', Esther was one of the elementary grade teachers. Earlier, Henry had been Superintendent at Rutland Consolidated between Rutland and Forman from 1940-42, then Pingree 1942-43 (after which he almost left teaching), then 1943-45 at Eldridge.
Small town public educators of Henry and Esther's day were frequently nomads. There was no job security. They were 'public servants' serving at the pleasure of the community. Contracts were renewed or not at will; a seeming better opportunity somewhere else, or a disagreement with the school board, could lead to a move. Long term job security was never assumed. Between the birth of Richard in 1940 and their retirement (at Harvey) in 1971, Henry and Esther lived and worked in a dozen towns, 11 in North Dakota, and one in Saskatchewan.
Esther passed away in August, 1981 (effects of colon cancer); Henry passed on in November, 1997, nearly reaching the age of 90. They had a very rich life, and both were teachers till the end. They and their five children all completed at least Bachelors Degrees in college. The children went on to varied careers.
THE FIRST SYKESTON 'ROUND': Henry came to Sykeston in the fall of 1945. Esther probably remained in Eldridge, since their fourth child, Frank, was born in November, and the hospital at Jamestown was close by, and Esther was closer to family at Berlin. The stated reason for coming to Sykeston was that Richard was soon to be school age, and Sykeston had a Catholic school.
A second teacher hired for Sykeston high school that fall of 1945 was George W. Busch, Esther's brother, who was an officer on the Destroyer Woodworth in the Pacific Theatre in WW II. The war in the Pacific did not end until the surrender of Japan in early September, 1945, and George was not discharged till the end of October, 1945, so his wife, Jean, a veteran teacher herself, started the school year as his substitute. September 10, 1945, the Woodworth docked in Tokyo, Japan. The surrender document was signed soon thereafter.
(The Busch and Bernard families saw lots of service in WWII. One of the first American casualties of WWII was Henrys younger brother, Frank, who was a six-year Navy man on the USS Arizona, and killed when the ship went down at Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941.) Richard has a vivid memory of what likely was the 1946 Memorial Day observance on the lawn of the high school. Even for a 6-year old, the ceremony left an indelible impression.
George Busch taught in Sykeston two or three years before moving to Rugby, and then later to Babbitt MN. George and Jeans oldest child, their daughter Mary Kay, was born while they lived in Sykeston. George and Jean Busch initially lived in the upstairs of the house across from Sondag's and behind Garhofer Red Owl Grocery. They may have moved to a rental house later. (Both George and Jean have passed away - 1979 and 1994. Mary Kay now lives in Minneapolis.)
The first round, Bernards were all little kids, with the usual little kid exploits and disasters. Richard, Mary Ann and Florence attended St. Elizabeth's. John (b. 1948) was the only Bernard born while the family lived in Sykeston.
1945-47 the Bernards lived in the Hafner house on the northwest corner of the Sykeston HS block. In 1947, a farm house that had been used as a granary was purchased and moved onto a lot at the very north edge of town. It was always called "the North House" by the family. Henry, doubtless with others help, did major renovation work to make the house habitable. Richard remembers earning a few highly valued cents 'selling' buckets of grain rescued from the house at the Lundby elevator. Initially the bathroom was an outhouse; at some point in the late 1940s non-potable city water arrived, and with it - in one memorable event - a tiny minnow which came out of the bathroom faucet after a doubtless harrowing trip across town. The minnow did not arrive alive.
Lake Hiawatha was the minnows 'home town.' Unusual for a North Dakota community, Sykeston bordered a small lake, in reality a dammed up portion of Pipestem Creek. Nonetheless, Lake Hiawatha bordered the town, and was a nearby source of endless adventure for youngsters of the town.
Henry and Esther got into the rabbit raising business in Sykeston. Responsibility for this decision remains a mystery. It may have been Richard's bright idea. Rabbits do "breed like rabbits" especially with no predators to worry about, and when Bernards left Sykeston the first time, there was plenty of canned rabbit meat traveling along. The family never tried raising rabbits again. The condominium development of rabbit hutches was not repeated.
We were in Sykeston when the Boys Basketball team won 3rd in the Class C State Tournament. Then-nine year old Richard remembers being at the tourney in Valley City, but nothing at all about the reason for the trip, which was to cheer on Sykes High.
TIME IN BETWEEN: At the end of the 1950-51 school year, the family moved to Karlsruhe (1951-53), then Ross (1953-54), then Antelope Consolidated (near Mooreton 1954-57) and then back to Sykeston. Karlsruhe was a town where the first language was German, and virtually everyone was Catholic and German-Russian. It, too, had a vibrant Catholic School staffed by Nuns from Hankinson. A short while earlier the ND legislature had passed an anti-garb rule, otherwise there may have been Nuns in their habits teaching in the public school as well.
Our year at Ross, 6 miles west of Stanley on U.S. Hwy 2, was in the early oil boom years in the Williston Basin. This year comes back to mind in this time of expanded exploration for oil in northwest ND. Housing was simply not available in Ross. We got the leftovers, a tiny inadequate house, and our time there was thus very short. Ross was then, and remains, on the main line of a transcontinental railroad. Scarcely more than a half hour passed between huge trains, usually pulled by several coal fired engines, passing through the town going east or west. We were blocks from the tracks.
Antelope Consolidated was a rural grade and high school between Mooreton and Barney, about 3 miles north of Highway 13. One year at Antelope there were two seniors - a Valedictorian and a Salutatorian (they both went on to college, though one ranked in the lower half of his class!) We lived in a 'teacherage' on the school grounds at Antelope, as we had at Ross. These were houses provided to the teacher by the school.
SYKESTON, THE SECOND 'ROUND': We moved back to Sykeston in time for Richard's senior year 1957-58. In June of 1957, the deadly Fargo tornado killed seven people and caused immense damage. In the same spring, a young golfer named Jack Nicklaus won his first major tournament in Fargo. A young baseball player named Roger Maris was honing his skills in Fargo, his home town. Four years later he would hit 61 home runs, a record that stood for 34 years, the same duration Babe Ruth had held the record.
The family home this second 'round' in Sykeston was one we called the "Town House." It was just east of the town hall and across the street from the Congregational Church.
When the Bernards returned to Sykeston, the children were ages 9 - 17, all very much involved in the life of the town. There are many memories, unique to each sibling, but doubtless shared with other contemporaries of each of us. Compared with 2008, where the local population is about two-thirds of the 1950s 230 or so residents, there were plenty of kids in Sykeston.
Some assorted and random memories: "Platter Parties", dances in Carrington, roller skating above the tavern, Doc Dummer and his dentists drill, pranks at Halloween, 4H, marbles, Wilds Cafe, Daniels Barber Shop, small town 'cruising', cherry cokes and root beer floats, Friday (or was it Saturday) night movies and wedding dances in the hall downtown. Then there's the Lake, town team baseball, town pump, infancy of TV, waiting for the train from Carrington, and mail at the post office, Jesse Evans airplane (it once overshot the runway and went into the local Lake Hiawatha), treasures and adventures at the town Dump....
The author vividly remembers the game of marbles: he was a producer of wealth for others. When a few extra cents were accumulated, a likely destination was Wagner Hardware to buy a bag of marbles, which was soon lost in someone's dirt circle in town. (Oh, what stories those patches of dirt could tell!) A vivid memory is being invited into someone's attic to see buckets of marbles, so numerous that they were divided into cans of boulders, steelies, and others. If there was a marble heaven, I saw it. Probably plenty of those marbles had been mine, once....
September, 15, 1957, Louis Armstrong and his band came to Carrington. Richard still has the program from that concert, which includes the autographs of Armstrong and two of his band members. It was a memorable evening. How Armstrong came to come to Carrington that year is a mystery still to be solved, though the band had been in Grand Forks the day before. Perhaps they were on the way to Bismarck? This was in the days before integration, and doubtless created a stir.
In the summer of 1958, Sykeston celebrated its 75th anniversary, and Bernards participated.
It was in the 1957-61 time period that the first stretch of Interstate 94 was completed between Valley City and Jamestown, and the still-famous giant Buffalo appeared beside the new freeway in "Jimtown."
ST. ELIZABETH'S: St. Elizabeth Church and School was central to family life both rounds. Fr. Sommerfeld remains a most memorable pastor among the many the family experienced over the years. Ditto, Philomena and the nuns, First Communion, Confirmation, serving Mass, singing...all the Bernards experienced the neat brick school and the old wooden church. The spring Richard graduated from high school - 1958 - ground was broken for the new church. Richard had a very short career, moving dirt by wheelbarrow at the site ($1 an hour) then seeing Sykeston in the rear view mirror enroute to summer school at Valley City State Teachers College.
"LIFE AFTER SYKESTON": The family moved on from Sykeston in 1961. Florence and Frank graduated from Tolley High School, and John from Tolna High School the year Tolna won the state Baseball Championship (1966). "Empty-nesters" Henry and Esther then took a year to teach in St. Brieux, Saskatchewan, and then closed out their careers, both teaching several years in Harvey. They retired in 1971, first to Grand Forks, and then to San Benito, TX in the Rio Grande Valley. Esther died there in 1981, and Henry moved to Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville IL in 1987, where he lived the last ten years of his life.
LIFE AFTER HIGH SCHOOL: Richard became "Dick" at Valley City State Teachers College. After 36 years in public education, 27 of those representing public school teachers, Dick retired in 2000. He and wife Cathy live very active lives in suburban St. Paul and have 10 grandkids, the oldest nearing 22. www.amillioncopies.info, and www.chez-nous.net.
Mary Ann (Maher) has lived since 1972 in Rochester NY. Mary began her nursing career in 1963 with graduation from the Sisters of St Joseph School of Nursing in Grand Forks and is currently a nurse practitioner and wound care nurse consultant with Omnicare in Rochester, New York. Two grown children (Sean-34) and (Rebecca-30) are married and live in Houston and San Diego respectively. Mary continues to enjoy work and travel and volunteers with the local philharmonic and Broadway theater leagues. Memories of Sykeston are her first jobs - babysitting, house cleaning, and milkshake making and of course the high school activities of dancing, swimming and skating on Lake Hiawatha, cruising in Carrington, singing in the choir at St Elizabeth's and of course, cheerleading and best friends!
Florence (Carter Hedeen) graduated from NDSU (1966) and has lived since 1974 in Park Rapids MN, and is very active in church and community life. Among her pursuits have been Peace Corps ('66-'68 - Dominican Republic), Extension Educator ('69-'72) MEd from UofM ('74), foster parent, domestic violence crisis line advocate, school board, private woodland management, building and hiking on the North Country National Scenic Trail, LWVMN, NWMN Women's Fund, peace with justice activities, canoeing and camping, and family. Florence and Carter have one son (Eric/Holly). Their adopted son, TJ, 36, (Mickey, two grandchildren) died in April, 2008, while receiving a new liver.
Frank has lived since 1973 in Salt Lake City. Frank graduated from UND in 1967 and received a second degree from the U. of Utah in accounting. In addition to being a pilot with the Air Force Reserve "I was a CPA. Now retired, I continue my 20 plus year addictions to sailing, golfing, tennis, biking, hiking and climbing - happy to say I've had the opportunity to do most of the above in various interesting parts of the world. Sykeston and North Dakota were at the root of all of it - and I thank the people and the life I grew up in and that shaped me."
John and Sherry married in 1976; and have lived in Davis CA since 1979. They have three grown children and 3 grandchildren. John is a graduate of UND and retired from the Air Force in 1990. then starting and continuing to run a home repair business in Davis. On the side, John and Sherry bred, raised and exhibited a progression of over 30 Champion Miniature Pinscher show dogs.
Click on small image to see larger image
The Bernard family - June, 1948 in Sykeston, shortly after John's birth
May 1958 in Sykeston, after Florence's Confirmation
November 1968, in Grand Forks
The North House - being moved into town
The North House - after renovation (1948)
The "Town House" 1957-58
Sykeston High School 1958
Lake Hiawatha 1958
Lake Hiawatha 1958
St. Elizabeth's school 1958
Fr. Sommerfeld ca 1960
Nuns and Philomena ca 1960
Buffalo overlooking Interstate 94 at Jamestown ca 1960
The Bernard "kids" in April 2008
John - June 2008